Brow Beat

Made by Women, Queen Sugar Is TV’s Best Show About Masculinity

Ralph Angel (Kofi Siriboe) struggles to raise his son, Blue (Ethan Hutchison).

Michelle K. Short/Warner Bros. Entertainment

On Queen Sugar, we rarely see Ralph Angel’s (Kofi Siriboe) young son, Blue, without his favorite doll in hand. For the entirety of the OWN series’ first season, this made for a pointed character detail, uncommented-upon as it implicitly posed a challenge to the way boys and their behaviors have typically been depicted on screen. But in Season 2, Queen Sugar has decided to flip that script. At the climax of its second episode, as Blue dines out with his father and mother (Darla, played by Bianca Lawson) and continues playing with his toy of choice, a waiter approaches with a calm smile. Blue raises his doll in the air, proudly, and asks for dessert. “That’s your doll?” the waiter asks him, to an affirmative nod. “You know, you should get a Transformer—those are really cool.” It’s an innocuous comment on its face. But it pushes Blue to retreat into his shell and Ralph Angel to stand up for his son, angrily and passionately. The waiter walks off, embarrassed.

It’s a skillful scene indicative of Queen Sugar’s long-standing ability to interweave personal conflicts and political messaging. But the moment also speaks to a subtle but sharp turn in the show’s approach to its male characters. Although Queen Sugar is a family drama principally made by and centered on women, it has drawn its male characters with sensitivity and emotional depth from the beginning. And where it was once content to give them the margins, it’s now demonstrating a keen interest in interrogating their maleness—revealing their prejudices and biases, exploring how they grapple with unfamiliar situations, and opening up routes to their self-realization.

Queen Sugar is dedicated to deconstructing dominant images of black men in popular culture. Ralph Angel is introduced, by design, as a familiar fictional figure: an ex-convict, incarcerated for committing some unspecified crime, going back to hustling and robbing on the streets of rural Louisiana. We’ve seen this idea countless times, and even when it’s handled smartly, it tends to be in support of broad, issue-driven storytelling. But Queen Sugar has reworked the trope as a rigorous character study, a search for the soul of a man boxed into an ugly stereotype by outside forces. His fight to escape the cycle makes for one of Queen Sugar’s most meticulously delinated character arcs. The first season primarily traced Ralph Angel’s journey to relative stability, inheriting the day-to-day duties on the farm his late father passed to him; it ended, essentially, as an affirmation of what can be possible, even for someone even as beaten-down by the system as Ralph Angel has been. Season 2 has redirected its attention to the character’s emotional wounds. Freed from the pressing daily anxieties about how to make a living for himself and his family, Ralph Angel is forced to look inward, contending with genuine responsibility and the possibility of fulfillment.

For Queen Sugar, Ralph Angel’s introspection has resulted in an acute focus on lasting pain—pain unearthed by the women who preach and practice empathy around him. When his sister Nova tries to organize a community bail fund, asking him to contribute and attend a fundraiser—in part because she thinks the cause should resonate with him—Ralph Angel coldly dismisses her efforts, unwilling to face the issue. When Micah (Nicholas L. Ashe)—the teenage son of his other sister, Charley (Dawn-Lyen Gardner)—is profiled and pulled over by a cop, then deeply shaken after a brief stint in jail, he shows little sympathy, even throwing Micah against the wall at one point for inadvertently snapping at Blue. Charley asks him to show understanding—“Micah’s going through a hard time; I thought you of all people could understand that”—but Ralph Angel again proves unwilling, instead picking at her choice of words. “I know you ain’t saying we had it the same,” he retorts. “His four hours of custody and my four years of prison?” He then attacks Micah’s masculinity: “Micah’s soft. It’s your fault—raising him like that.” The common thread is key: the women in Ralph Angel’s life asking him to draw compassion from his own experience. But by separating himself from the community’s outreach and using demeaning language to put down his own nephew, Ralph Angel only reveals his continuing struggles with self-loathing, the extent to which even he has trouble seeing himself outside of his assigned role.

Then there’s Micah, a rich kid who, removed from privilege after Charley is separated from his unfaithful basketball-star father, is left to renegotiate his identity as a black man. His unsettling run-in with law enforcement serves as the main catalyst: Micah is an uncommonly sensitive teenage boy, and his trauma compels him to consider the experiences of the people around him. Indeed, he represses his own experience until Nova draws him into her community efforts. “Remaining silent when one must speak is the slow death of freedom,” she tells him. “I want you to be free.” The pressure to “be a man” provides plenty of fuel in television as a whole, but it’s overwhelmingly in service of antihero narratives and satirical send-ups, taken seriously only insofar as it informs dangerous behavior. On Queen Sugar, however, women ask the men in their lives to come to terms with the ugliest moments in their past, find the power in them, and use it for a greater good.

It’s never about who’s right and who’s wrong but the addition of empathy to male-centric conversations. It’s Nova and Charley’s push that allows us to dig deeper into characters like Ralph Angel and Micah. Queen Sugar takes a radical approach in its embrace of contradiction and complexity—Ralph Angel can lash out at Micah for being “soft” one minute, then defend his son’s right to defy masculine norms the next—and in its belief in healing. It builds to a stinging rebuke of toxic masculinity, a revision of narrative by female storytellers and characters that finds new ways of breaking out of oppressive systems and behavioral patterns. Violence and guns aren’t used to get the point across here. Instead of shooting guns, the men of Queen Sugar shed tears.

Five episodes into its second season, Queen Sugar has built solidly on the first’s foundation. Nova and Charley remain the show’s heart and soul, but creator Ava DuVernay and showrunner Monica Macer have fleshed out the supporting cast. That’s standard procedure for any good ensemble drama, but the difference here is the way that expansion so richly informs Queen Sugar’s mission. This is a show foremost interested in the path to authentic living, using the contexts of blackness and Southern life to imbue a profoundly human story with political significance. For its men, that path requires a certain emotional catharsis. That’s why, persuaded by his talks with Charley, Ralph Angel ultimately comes around to having a heart-to-heart with Micah. He describes his own difficult journey through prison and crime, marginalization and mistreatment, to reclaiming his manhood. “I’ve been through some shit,” he confides. “When you’re inside, it’s normal for folks to act like animals—hell, they practically force us to. But out here, we’re human. Can’t ever forget that.”